Graduation film "Half Elf" on Netflix: Interview with VMA graduate Jón Bjarki Magnússon

Jón Bjarki Magnússon, graduate and former lecturer of the M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology, has every reason to be happy: His film "Half Elf", which is based on his graduation film, is now available on Netflix! In this interview, he talks about the project and shares some important advice for young filmmakers.

Your film “Half Elf” which is based on your graduation film you produced for your master in M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology (at FU Berlin) is now streaming on Netflix. First of all, congratulations! What came to your mind when you got this good news?

Thank you! I think gratitude is the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the success of the film in general. After a long and rough three-year process of making and producing a film without a budget and trying to get it out in the midst of a pandemic, being able to screen it at many international festivals where it entered competitions and won several prizes, was a wonderful recognition of the hard work everyone involved had put into this.

Knowing that millions of viewers in many different countries will now be able to stream it from the comfort of their homes, feels surreal to say the least. And while it is impossible to know what the main protagonists of the film think about all this; I suspect that they are enjoying the ride even more than me from wherever they are.

I am especially grateful for all the good people who believed in this project from the beginning and were willing to give their work to see it come through. These include my partner Hlín Ólafsdóttir, who produced the film with me and composed the music, Andy Lawrence, my MA supervisor and associate producer, Veronika Janatková, dramaturg and associate producer, amongst family members and great friends who gave their hearts and souls into this without getting much in return. Furthermore, I am of course extremely grateful for my protagonists and grandparents Hulda and Trausti, who were willing to go on this journey with me giving all they had to portray their truth on camera for their grandson and now the wider world.



How did that all come about that your film is now available on Netflix? Did you apply for that/submitted your film yourself?

I have an agreement with Feelsales, an international sales agency, who is responsible for the sales of the film.

In your film a lighthouse keeper prepares for his earthly funeral while trying to reconnect the elf within. What inspired you to make a modern fairy tale based in your home country Iceland? What was your approach to the subject and your greatest learning from this film experience?

The film follows lighthouse keeper Trausti who is preparing for his hundredth-year old birthday and/or funeral, while his wife Hulda retreats into a world of forgotten poetry with the help of her magnifying glass. As I was doing my Masters, the idea about making a final project about my grandparents as they went about their final days, grew stronger in me. My grandmother was ninety-six at this time and grandfather ninety-nine, so I knew that time was slipping. With that in mind, there was no way going back really. Grandfather had already bought his coffin and I was fascinated by how he used humor and play to navigate his own impending death. Grandmother made fun of him for trying to control everything and even suspecting his relatives to put him “in the ground in a bag.” I wanted to catch these nuances between them, these very different characteristics that had run through seventy years of marriage and landed them where they were now at. 



I implemented participant observation with an observational approach to the use of the camera, where I would dwell with them for longer periods of time, aiming to portray who they were as they went about their daily life at this specific time. Here the camera became a research tool in and of itself, and as I moved further into the editing room with the material, I would start to find threads that would later come bind the piece together, such as grandfathers dream about changing his name to Elf, and grandmothers’ frustration with his behavior. Play and performance, originating from the protagonists themselves, would also become an internal part of the filmmaking itself, as my grandparents would find their own filmic-voices through acts such as singing and reciting of poetry in front of the camera.

The whole process was very much of a learning curve for me, as I was new to filmmaking and had never made a feature documentary film prior to this. As I was working with my own family, I had to navigate my way through familial difficulties and use the problems they presented to support the filmmaking and deepen the research.

I suppose one of the greatest learning experiences was in how collaborative the whole process became as we went about molding this together piece by piece. My grandparents themselves offered the solutions to these complicated negotiations in the way they acted or in the stories they shared. And what often felt like total chaos came perfectly together in the end, as long as I searched purposefully for these answers in the material itself. Coming from a background in newspaper journalism, another great learning experience was in the strength of images and how they are able to portray the inner worlds of characters’ lives in a different fashion than words can. I was fascinated by how images could be used to escape categorizations while leaving things open to different interpretations, and this power of the image has struck with me.



What advice do you have for VMA students who are planning to make their first steps in film production/thinking about submitting their film project to a competition/festival?

First, work on something you love or burn for. This will make you much more dedicated when it comes to other very important aspects of the filmmaking process, such as building a narrative arch through the collected material and/or picking up the most suitable camera or sound work techniques.

Which leads me to a second advise which my supervisor, Andy Lawrence, never got tired of repeating: Don’t forget to think seriously about sound. It is so important. And while you might not be able to collect the most perfect sound due to lack of experience and/or chaos on set, the fact that you have familiarized yourself with the techniques involved and tried your best to collect sound in the best suitable way for each setting, will make your work so much better and can in some ways make or break a film.

Thirdly, I would advise people to prepare for chaos. This will most certainly not go according to plan. But that is also the most enriching part of the whole experience. We are dealing with real people and real-world settings and something new and surprising is bound to come out of it. Finally, submit the final product to as many festivals you can and be prepared for receiving many no’s or no answers at all. This will only make you so much happier when you get that wonderful long sought for positive answer. 

What are you working on at the moment? Could you already tell us a bit more about your future projects?

The M.A. program and the journey with Half Elf has certainly led me into new territories. As the film has been screened at festivals around Europe in the last two years, I have been presenting the research behind the project at festivals and anthropological conferences and am now working on journal articles about these themes that should be out in the coming year/s.

I am currently working on a multimodal ethnographic Ph.D. research, at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, on the social connections of older adults in online virtual worlds, funded by the ADVANCE CRT Science Foundation Ireland Centre for Research Training. Interestingly, my short film made as a final project in digital anthropology in the M.A. program called Even Asteroids Are Not Alone (2018) dealt with similar themes, and was in a way the seed that led me to this research.



Furthermore, I am writing a script with Hlín Ólafsdóttir for the development of another feature documentary film placed in the remote North-Western region of Iceland, which we will co-direct. It’s too early in the process to say much at this stage but some of the themes are somewhat connected to those we were dealing with in Half Elf.

Thank you very much for the fascinating insights into your work. We wish you all the best for the future!